William Poole-Wilson, of Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will
Architects and designers are very good at designing high-performance buildings that save water and energy, reduce waste, improve air quality and increase occupant health and productivity. They take a holistic approach to building design that considers all aspects of the built environment as part of one system. But do we really understand the behaviour of those that use them?
Despite the despair at RIO 20+, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development showed that we have been getting some things right, but it’s a slow process with a variety of protagonists. Here are some words of wisdom from one of them, Gro Harlem Brundtland, who established and chaired the Brundtland Commission in 1983, out of which came the most widely used definition of sustainable development.
“Obviously when you look back 25 years now, less than one would have expected has happened – that’s clear – but you can’t think you can turn the world round in 25 years.”
“There are ‘complex reasons’ why governments have been unable to take the vision further – including the power of corporations.”
“In our political system, corporations, businesses and people who have economic power influence political decision-makers – that’s a fact, and so it’s part of the analysis.”
So the challenge is how to achieve more in the urban environment in the next 25 years. What’s missing? It struck me that some of the despair surrounding RIO was similar to the debate around landlords, building managers and occupiers. The corporations, politicians and people simply don’t agree. The occupier says they can do nothing because of the landlord’s financial and physical ownership, the building manager can only operate the system if the other two agree. They all need to be part of the design analysis, part of the brief.
An integral part of the built environment system is the building occupant. Without the occupants’ support of a building’s high-performing attributes, even the most well-designed building can fail to measure up to its high-performance potential. Occupants are critical to being sustainable despite often being ignored because of the complexity in addressing human behaviour.
A successful occupant engagement programme in a commercial building will help create a building-wide culture of awareness in which tenant organisations, employees and other stakeholders feel empowered and accountable for their contribution to a high-performance building. It is interesting that whilst RIO20+ was being reported, I was introduced to the work at the Toronto-Dominion Centre, by Perkins+Will.
Buildings have life spans and need to be maintained and retrofitted to extend the lifecycle of equipment and parts. The Toronto-Dominion Centre is not like any other building though. The landlord wanted to keep the tenants and run a better building. What’s unusual is that, rather than trying to introduce green leases or make other demands that usually create conflict, a facilitator who is knowledgeable about behavioural use of buildings has been introduced. In this instance, Perkins+Will, as the facilitator, gathered a brief and helped make change happen, bringing the players together to understand each other’s issues and grievances so they can be translated into opportunities. The TDC has set up a green council made up of tenant representatives appointed by their organisations’ executive leadership. The Green Council acts as the advisory group for developing and driving the engagement program, holistically linking and acting as the catalyst for sustainability.
A comprehensive occupier engagement programme, introduced by the landlord, will feed into this process. What is particularly interesting and refreshing about this project is that it didn’t start with assumptions, it started with behavioural change. The landlord engaged with its occupants and went beyond posters and emails, a template of tools, one size-fits all, capital investment, retrofit, or money saving measures to understand the behaviours of the users so the solution works for everyone. It recognised that every business is different and even parts of the same business operate differently with varying priorities.
The end result is a better building, thanks to a considered brief informed by a comprehensive understanding of the building’s design, its operations and use and its demographics. New elements incorporated into the building are there for a reason and as such are a good investment.
Because occupant engagement is a new and emerging practice in the commercial building sector, there are myths to dispel, myths that were all too clear at RIO20+, just as they exist in our own understanding of architecture and design right now.
Architecture can and should be inspirational and we must engage occupiers in a comprehensive and meaningful dialogue so we can effect positive change for the benefit of future generations.